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Kevin Cronin Marks 50 Years as a Friar

This is the second in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The first was John Hogan, OFM. The Province’s 2019 silver and golden jubilarians are scheduled to be honored in June at a special Mass celebrated in New York City.

BUTLER, N.J. – After receiving his first Holy Communion, Kevin Cronin, OFM, would ride his bike to Our Lady of the Snows Church, more than a half-mile from his childhood home in North Floral Park, Queens, N.Y., to attend Mass before the start of every school day. Today, Kevin journeys to multiple churches, sometimes hundreds of miles away – as St. Francis of Assisi and his followers did in their travels 800 years ago – to share the joy of the Gospel with others.

“It is one of the most essential and oldest ministries of the Franciscans, sending out friars two-by-two just as Jesus and Francis did,” Kevin said during an interview at St. Anthony Friary in Butler, where he has lived since 2008.

“I had my mind set on missions and retreats because preaching, teaching and sharing the Good News and love of Jesus opens the minds of people to think differently,” added Kevin, who is marking his 50th anniversary since his first profession as a Franciscan friar.

He has spent more than half that time in the Franciscan Ministry of the Word, a Holy Name Province ministry in which he and other friars preach parish missions, retreats and days of recollection.

His interest in retreat ministry may have been ignited during public speaking courses at St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., but the early foundation was set while he was earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (in 1971) at The Catholic University of America and a masters in theology (1974) at Washington Theological Union, both in Washington, D.C.

That’s when he became part of a fraternity ministry in which teams of friars would preach weekend retreats to teenage students at high schools and religious education programs in Washington and in nearby Maryland and northern Virginia.

“To get people to listen – especially young people – you need to have a presence. You have to keep it interesting. If you’re boring, you lose them,” said Kevin, who, at the time of this interview, was preparing for a full schedule of parish Lenten missions, one of the busiest times of the year for him.

Kevin in a photo taken more than 40 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Kevin.)

Early Life
It was the sense of the presence of a famous “Hollywood” friar in tandem with a boyhood friend and magazine that led him to the Franciscans. As Kevin explained in a Sept. 2011 reflection in The Anthonian magazine on his Franciscan journey: “My best grammar school friend, Jimmy Walters, and I used to send away for ‘free information’ from religious orders. I received lots of information from the Josephites, Maryknolls, Jesuits, and Carmelites. Deep down, I wanted to become a Franciscan.

“It sounds silly now, but I attribute my initial inspiration to Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood movie. He was my kind of priest: jolly, serving God, helping the poor. I had no address [for the Franciscans], that is, until Jimmy said, ‘Hey Kev, I found the Franciscans for you in a magazine my mother gets.’ As they say, the rest is history.”

The youngest of three children, he was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in the Franciscan parish of Holy Cross, but was too young to recall meeting any friars. His father, an NYPD detective in Harlem, moved the family to Floral Park when Kevin was three years old. Kevin served as an altar boy at Our Lady of the Snows and attended St. Anne’s Grammar School in nearby Garden City, and later American Martyrs in Bayside. His mother died eight years after the move, when he was 11 years old.

“I loved the Lord and our faith, so in seventh grade, I asked my dad if I could go to the seminary. He was all for it,” said Kevin, who after graduating from American Martyrs at age 14 entered St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Upstate New York’s Sullivan County.

After six years in Callicoon, he was received into Holy Name Province in 1968 at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he made his first profession in 1969. Kevin professed his final vows in 1972 at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street. in New York City. He was ordained in 1974 by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md.

The Province’s profession class of 1969. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Cronin.)

Thesis Turned Book
Before his ordination, in addition to giving retreats to and teaching high school students, Kevin worked at an orphanage and spent three summers ministering to mostly Mexican migrant workers in South Jersey – where he and a group of friars prepared them for the sacraments and drove them to Mass in a yellow school bus.

His experiences of an internship at the 31st Street friary – where he worked on the famous Breadline and at St. Francis Residence (a housing program founded by friars for the mentally ill homeless) – was the basis for his master’s thesis, which he titled “Kenosis,” a Greek word meaning emptying one’s self. But that wouldn’t be the last anyone heard about his thesis.

Nearly 14 years later, when Kevin was assigned to St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J., he often used portions of his thesis during Sunday Mass homilies – prompting an elderly parishioner to ask to read the document in its entirety. She subsequently encouraged him to have it published – and later that summer, connected him to Richard Payne, at the time an editor-in-chief of the “Classics in Western Spirituality Series” at a major publishing company. Kevin didn’t think it would advance any further, but coincidentally on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, he received a call that his book was being published.

That Kevin landed at the Pompton Lakes parish was by his own design. But a glimpse into his ministerial path prior to that explains how this pastoral environment became a stepping-stone to his dream ministry of preaching missions and retreats.

Kevin making final vows into the hands of Provincial Minister Finian Kerwin, OFM. (Photo courtesy of Kevin.)

After ordination, his first assignment in 1974 was St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Mass. “I wanted to go to a place where I could experience the priesthood and bring about change,” said Kevin, who immediately made an impact by helping to launch an adult religious education program, and later a community for young adult Catholics. “People were hungry for their faith and wanted to learn what was happening in the Church post-Vatican II.”

A coffeehouse ministry called “Many Mansions” (based on John 14:2) morphed from the young Catholics in which a folk group traveled across the city to bring God’s presence to others, often singing on the Boston Commons and holding special events such as Easter sunrise services on the Charles River.

A key to the success of these ministries was the openness of Joseph Sullivan, OFM, the Shrine’s rector whom Kevin had met at a fraternal workshop, and the team of friars at St. Anthony. “Joe was always very encouraging and open to change, and the friars were so warm and welcoming that it resulted in a half-dozen vocations,” said Kevin, whose diversified ministries in Boston included preaching retreats for teenagers, serving as chaplain for the QE2 cruise line, and conducting pilgrimages to Rome and Assisi.

Return to Birthplace, Sabbatical Provide Perspective
Kevin left the Shrine in 1982 to join John Hogan, OFM, in the Province’s vocation office at Holy Cross – an assignment that reunited him with the Bronx parish where he was born and baptized, and with the friar he calls one of his best friends, as he and John were classmates in the late 1960s. While he enjoyed helping young men in discernment, he felt that he could do more for vocations by being on the frontlines of ministry.

In 1986, Kevin went on sabbatical, spending two months living as a hermit and five weeks in Jamaica trying life as a missionary with Cornelius Conti, OFM, before going to Berkeley, Calif., where Roy Gasnick, OFM, was living, to study the media and its impact on society and culture. “Roy was one of my most influential mentors during formation. He had a way of igniting your love for St. Francis,” Kevin recalled.

At the tail end of his sabbatical, at around the time his father passed away in Florida, friars in Ministry of the Word asked him to join the team. Although the invitation would provide the platform of the mission-based ministry he desired, he wasn’t ready to hit the road just yet.

“I didn’t join the Franciscans to be a parish priest, but serving in a parish was the ideal training ground for Ministry of the Word. If I was going to give parish missions, I should know what parishioners wanted and what a parish was like,” said Kevin, who arrived in 1987 at St. Mary’s in Pompton Lakes, an active suburban parish with a school.

Kevin’s second book: A Friar’s Joy

“It was challenging – meetings, the cycle of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I headed the Confirmation program. It was an enriching experience that gave me an understanding of parish life,” said Kevin, who started an adult religious education program and connected with the parish’s young adults.

One time when he returned to the friary, a group of distraught students was present to ask him to celebrate a special Mass for a classmate who was involved in a horrific automobile accident. The student eventually died from his injuries. “I never felt so stretched. It was one of the hardest funerals in all my years as a friar,” said Kevin, who remains in contact with students, many of whose weddings he officiated.

At Long Last – Ministry of the Word
In 1993, Kevin joined Ministry of the Word, initially based in East Rutherford (from 1993 to 1995) and later in Ho-Ho-Kus (from 1995 to 2008), both boroughs in Bergen County, N.J., before moving to the Butler friary in April 2008.

“It was an adjustment coming from a busy parish to a ministry that had a lot of downtimes. But that’s the nature of missions and retreats – high intensity when they’re happening. Being a visiting missionary for 25 years takes its toll, but I love doing it,” said Kevin, who also provides adult religious education to various groups and has been invited to give workshops five times at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

For Kevin, a mission typically begins with him preaching at all weekend Masses to preview the mission, followed by three days (Mon. to Wed.) of morning and evening services and mission preaching whose themes usually are love, peace and mercy, and healing.

“When you’re a visiting priest, you’re the voice. It takes a lot to be at your peak for five consecutive days. People who come to hear you speak expect you to be charismatic, so you better be on,” Kevin said.

Working with other friars in Ministry of the Word led to the idea for his second book, A Friar’s Joy, Magic Moments From Real Life, a compilation of his and 10 other friars’ stories about their experiences. This book, as well as Kenosis – along with CDs of presentations of friars – are sold at missions to help pay for expenses.

Kevin’s car is like a traveling office and he always finds himself sleeping in a different place from week-to-week – which makes it a welcome relief when he’s back at the Butler friary. While he uses the downtime to recharge his battery and live in fraternity, he doesn’t get too comfortable because when Kevin isn’t preaching missions or retreats, he serves four months a year at other parishes.

Kevin shows some of the many mementos he has collected over the years. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Taking the Lead from Francis
In his mission preaching, Kevin follows these words of St. Francis – “What else are the servants of God but minstrels whose work is to lift up people’s hearts to spiritual joy, that they might love God gladly.” His presentations are always injected with humor and a style that fully engages participants.

“People are more responsive and open when you lighten things up with humor. Even in dire times, when I have preached after disasters like Superstorm Sandy, people thank me for making them laugh. That’s good healing,” he said.

“Sharing the good news of the resurrection of Jesus – that’s why I am a priest, that’s why I am a Franciscan friar. He rose from the dead and I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing if that didn’t happen,” he added.

Although he is grateful for the close friendships he developed at the Shrine and St. Mary’s, Kevin cherishes working and living in fraternity. “What I have really enjoyed about being a friar all these years is living the different levels of Franciscan life. But no matter where we are at, we always have each other for support,” he said.

“I love the spirit of St. Francis and sharing that with the world. The Franciscans have provided me with this great opportunity of ministry. I have been able to do everything that I have pursued through the encouragement and support of the Provincial leadership and my fellow brothers,” Kevin added.

Among those supporters have been Michael Duffy, OFM, who preached at Kevin’s first Mass and at his 25th anniversary of profession, Iggy Harding, OFM, whom Kevin has found to be a “wonderful example” of what it means to be a Franciscan, and Ignatius Smith, OFM, who is a long-time friend and, according to Kevin, an inspiration.

Kevin counts among his hobbies bird-watching, gardening and anything to do with nature. When living at his previous residence in Ho-Ho-Kus, Kevin made it a point to feed the birds. He even took in a cardinal with a wounded wing and nursed it back to health, prompting him to fill a huge birdcage with pet parakeets. Although he had as many as a dozen, he currently has five of the critters – earning him the nickname, the “Birdman of Butler.”

Kevin also enjoys long walks not purely for the exercise, but because he does his best praying, thinking and reflecting – and perhaps is filled by the Spirit with the inspiring words he delivers at parish missions.

— Stephen Mangione, a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

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